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Student's internship at NASA leads to co-op

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By Ashish Valentine, ECE ILLINOIS
July 28, 2014

  • Illinois mechanical engineering student and ECE minor Madison Heimerdinger worked on an internship at NASA, aiding in an investigation into the near-failure of a device on the International Space Station and in managing the Mission Evaluation Room.
  • Heimerdinger was denied a job at NASA three times before finally securing her internship, and advises applicants "just because you're rejected doesn't mean you've lost forever."
  • Heimerdinger has since been hired for a co-op at NASA in the spring, and hopes to work in robotics projects such as the agency's rover program.

The International Space Station relies on a number of mission-critical components to keep its crew alive and well while hurtling through the hostile conditions of space, and the failure of even one life-support device on the station, if unchecked, could spell disaster.

Events came fearfully close to this catastrophe in December 2013 when an interface heat exchanger on the station’s Columbus module almost froze and ruptured, a disaster that would have flooded the station with ammonia and doomed everyone on board.

Madison Heimerdinger, Illinois mechanical engineering student and ECE minor.
Madison Heimerdinger, Illinois mechanical engineering student and ECE minor.
Back on Earth at NASA’s Mission Evaluation Room in Houston, Illinois mechanical engineering student and ECE minor Madison Heimerdinger worked on an internship in which part of her duties were aiding in an investigation into the device's close call, how NASA could prevent the another incident like this from happening again, and how the crew could react in case it did happen.

She examined console logs and voice loops and talked to personnel from NASA and from the European Space Agency to determine what may have caused the near failure. Her internship began this spring.

“As part of the investigation, I built an integrated timeline that focused on everything happening from the day before the event happened until the heat exchanger was successfully restarted,” Heimerdinger said. “I gathered information by listening to voice loops, going through console logs, and talking to people from NASA and the European Space Agency to find out what went wrong.”

Ultimately, it was discovered that multiple events led to the device’s near-failure. One of the main discoveries was that there was no set document that established a time limit for cold ammonia to be flowing while the device was in what’s called “start-up mode,” which led to the device almost leaking cold ammonia into the crew’s living space.

Heimerdinger’s job at NASA investigating events on the International Space Station and working in the Mission Evaluation room in Houston is the career equivalent of a holy grail for engineering students, though many of them may be surprised to learn she was actually declined a job at three separate NASA interviews before landing her internship.

“This will sound cliché, but if people want to do something, they just need to be proactive, go out and talk to people, hand out their resume, and get involved,” Heimerdinger said. “It took me three noes before I got a yes, so just because you’re rejected once doesn’t mean you’ve lost forever.”

Apart from examining evidence in the investigation, Heimerdinger worked mainly in the Mission Evaluation Room at NASA, an area behind the oft-filmed Mission Control Center, in which engineers and other staff members help coordinate NASA’s missions and monitor events at their computer consoles.

Much of her job involved interacting with the members of the Mission Evaluation team, and making sure the proper staff working at consoles in the Mission Evaluation Room signed off on flight notes so that actions in orbit had the clearance to proceed.

After the internship, Heimerdinger earned a co-op position at NASA, which she’ll start this spring. She doesn’t know specifically what she will be assigned to, but is pulled toward robotics work, such as working on the rovers that will hurtle through alien atmospheres and make their marks on the soils of other worlds.

“I applied to NASA as a whole at first, and then they will place me somewhere for my first co-op tour. I’d love the chance to work with the rovers, but it is competitive to get placed in that division,” Heimerdinger said.

Though almost every engineering student aspires to work at an organization like NASA, Heimerdinger’s dreams of working there stem from the earliest years of her childhood, when her father was a special government employee for the agency.

Heimerdinger with her parents at NASA's offices in Houston.
Heimerdinger with her parents at NASA's offices in Houston.
“My dad was a member of the Independent Analysis Team for the Columbia Accident Investigation and the U.S. and Russian Commission on the Operational Readiness and Safety of the International Space Station, so I’ve kind of been surrounded by his work for my whole life,” Heimerdinger said. “When I was younger, I didn’t understand much; I just knew it was really important. But later, as I got older I understood more and wanted to follow in his footsteps. It just seemed like an engineer’s dream.”

The question on anyone’s mind when talking about working at NASA is, of course, whether she would want to be an astronaut.

“I think it’d be really cool to be an astronaut, because so many engineers dream of working at NASA, and so many people at NASA dream of being picked to go into space,” Heimerdinger said. “It’s very selective and I’d be honored if I was chosen, but realistically, I don’t know if that would ever happen.”

One might expect the environment at NASA, staffed as it is with the cream of the crop of engineers and scientists, to be incredibly intimidating. However, on the contrary “the work environment was actually very relaxed,” Heimerdinger said.

“The people at NASA are so smart and driven to begin with, we didn’t constantly have bosses breathing down our backs because everyone was already doing what they needed to do,” Heimerdinger said. “We needed to be timely because people’s lives up in space depend on it, and if we had to work overtime nobody minded, because we all loved what we were doing.”

Heimerdinger’s career goals are to earn a PhD in robotics and ultimately land a job at NASA. But even after the amazing feat of earning a position at the agency, after 20 or 30 years working there, she hopes to strike out on her own by forming a startup.

“I want to help people in ways that really affect their lives,” Heimerdinger said. “I’m really interested in prosthetics, specifically making them cheaper and easier to use for people, so after 20 or 30 years at NASA, I’d love to start a company doing something like that.”

Heimerdinger has big plans ahead of her, and is elated to begin the first steps into her career at NASA. Though she hasn't worked there long, her mentor, Group Lead Elizabeth Bauer, sees a bright future ahead for Heimerdinger.

"Madison energetically approached her internship as a true development opportunity, striving to take full advantage of every aspect of her work," Bauer said. "Madison clearly has the capabilities, technical aptitude, assertiveness, and interpersonal strengths that best predict success for engineers at Johnson Space Center. We look forward to having her back in 2015."

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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